I don’t remember the year precisely, but it was after 2000 and Douglas County High School had made it to the state football playoffs, so that should help narrow it down.
Scott and I were employed by the Douglas County Sentinel – he as a sports writer and I as a… well, I worked on toilets, fixed air conditioners, hauled rock salt and frequently wrote news stories and a regular opinion column. When the Tigers advanced far enough in the playoffs that someone was going to have to drive a ways to see the game, Scott was their boy.
Since he was going to be driving down and getting a hotel room anyway, he was kind enough to extend an invitation to Joey, Cameron and I as well. It sounded like a terrible proposition – drive down to the edge of the South Georgia swamps to watch a high school football game and stay in some backwoods motel in the middle of nowhere. So naturally, we were in.
For the trip, Scott invested in a new stereo. Not new speakers, mind you (or an oil change, tire pressure gauge or any transmission fluid to top it off) – just a new stereo. It folded down from the dashboard of his Saturn, aglow in bright pinks and blues. That it folded down from the dashboard of a Saturn made it conspicuous enough, but then it also had an animated display featuring dolphins dancing and frolicking as the music played. The rims on Scott’s car were not large enough to support such a system, and so it soon refused to fold down properly from the dash until Scott agreed to buy some spinners for the damned thing.
Now, if it’s Scott’s car, Scott insists on driving. He says it’s not a trust thing, but of course it is. Why didn’t Scott drive the Bonneville any further than from the gas pump to the front of the convenience store in the two weeks we spent driving to California and back? Because we couldn’t trust him after he said he couldn’t drive a minivan because it was “too big.” Scott’s style of driving is to avoid lane changes at all costs, preferring instead to tuck in closely behind a semi and all but climb across the hood and grab on to the truck’s rear bumper to pull the car along. He also has a thing about pedals, where he seems to forget precisely which one he is currently pressing, and so “gooses” it a little just to see what the car does. So, you end up with these little jolts of sudden acceleration and brake checks that cannot be attributed to any external factors, like the desire to pass a car or someone riding his ass even as he rides the ass of the tractor trailer in front of you.
We compensated for Scott’s erratic driving by first making our peace with God and ensuring that, unlike the rest of the vehicle, the seatbelts were in good working order. Then we proceeded to distract ourselves by laughing, joking and telling stories all the way from Douglasville to Waycross.
Once there, we found the hotel – a Day’s Inn, I believe it was, and a nice one at that – and checked in. Scott, Joey and Cameron were going to the game. I was going to stay in the room and see how big a dent I could put in a case of beer.
As the game – and Douglas County’s season – drew to a close, the three climbed into the Saturn and filed into the procession of cars departing the stadium. Looking about, Joey was unfamiliar with his surroundings (which, admittedly, isn’t unusual for Joey). He asked Scott if Scott knew where he was going. Scott replied that he did not, but was simply following the cars in front of him.
“Scott, those people probably aren’t going back to our hotel,” Joey said.
So, Scott made a “Scott U-turn.” A Scott U-turn occurs when, instead of turning around, you pull down a random side street and presume that you will be able to circle a block or otherwise complete a series of turns in the same direction that will, geographically speaking, place you facing the opposite direction from that which you were facing before you turned off onto the side street. Successfully completed, you’ll have no idea where the hell you are.
I do not know how they made it back to the hotel, except that Cameron swears they entered a tear in the space-time continuum and actually made it back to the hotel five minutes a full five minutes before they made it back to the hotel.
Since this was going to be their vacation for the year, Joey and Cameron decided to go sightseeing. In Waycross. Surely, they supposed, everything there was to see would be within a brief walk of the Day’s Inn.
When they returned, they had with them some letters that they had found – the kind that are used on those illuminated marquees to advertise one-dollar pints and “Big Macks” (because the people who put up the signs are not paid sufficiently to be concerned with spelling). These letters were all over town, they said, probably owing to the strong storm that had moved through prior to our visit. Deciding that these made novel souvenirs – the ratio, they figured, was that three letters was good for one magnet, seven were the same in value to a T-shirt and one, folded in half with some chewing gum inside was equal to a postcard – Joey and Cameron went back out to find some more.
I stayed in the room, read the Gideons’ Bible and kept working on my beer.
A short time later, there was a knock at the door. I opened it, and Joey was there – alone.
“Where’s Cameron?” I asked.
“They got him,” Joey said.
“Who got him?” I asked, figuring Cameron had gotten busted for grabbing letters. Usually, if someone’s going to get arrested, it’s Cameron.
“The sign people,” Joey said.
I was puzzled. “You mean, the people who own the signs, or the police?”
“No, the sign people.”
That moment was the closest I’ve ever come to clocking Joey. It would be ill-advised, because the man is much stronger than he looks, and because he is well-liked and a lot of people would be unhappy to hear that he had been clocked. But when you’ve had a bit to drink, a friend is evidently in danger, and the person giving you information related to said friend’s whereabouts is so terribly ill-suited to the task, it’s normal to feel that you must take action. If you’re me, that action usually involves hitting something squarely on its chin before it can see it coming.
“What sign people?” I asked, growing desperate. The need to sock him was not unlike the need to pee. I tried to ignore it, but the urge just kept getting stronger.
“You know, the sign people,” he said. He looked unconcerned, but he always kind of looked that way. Unless someone was vomiting milk. That usually gets him excited.
In my mind, I was shaking him. I had him down on the walkway outside our room, standing over him, holding him by the shoulders and shaking him violently. The back of his head was bouncing off the concrete, and with each bounce, a stain of red grew ever wider underneath as his skull grew concaved on that side and flesh and hair gave way to the hardened mix of sand, stone and water.
In my person, however, I stood motionless, the door open, looking out into the dark at good ol’ unassuming Joey, who had just seen his best friend taken by the sign people and who was now either in shock or, more likely than not, just wanted to come in and eat a sandwich.
It was then that another figure stepped from the shadows into the narrow square of light from the open hotel room door. This one was tan-skinned and smiling. I couldn’t hit Joey. Joey wasn’t the type of person you punch. Cameron, however, was. So, I hit him.
“Ow! What was that for!?” he said as he stumbled into the room.
“That’s from the sign people,” I said.
That night we cracked open a few beers (not Joey) and made use of the hotel stationary to write a long and detailed letter. The letter was addressed to whomever might find it, and included a narrative, in first person and graphic in detail, of a romance that had allegedly unfolded in this room. The author met a man, a stranger in his early 20s, at the bar across the way. Their conversation began casually enough, but it brought the two to this room, where the author, at 46 years of age, found a sense of “fulfillment” he had never imagined possible. The men made love. Everywhere. There wasn’t a surface that had not been touched by casual, unprotected and anonymous gay sex.
The letter was then placed just behind the framed picture over one of the beds, such that it was unnoticeable until a guest would lie down for the night and notice it, just as they looked up to turn off the lamp beside their bed. There is would be, a small sheet of paper, something that did not belong there, just sticking out from behind the frame. One would reach for it, surely. You could not chance that it might fall free in the night. Besides, human curiosity is a powerful force. It can put men on the moon, or even on top of one another on an autumn evening in the Waycross Day’s Inn.
That done, we then set Joey about walking outside, barefoot, until his feet were black with parking lot grime. We dabbed the soles carefully with a wet paper towel and then, holding Joey upside down, helped him “walk” with his feet to the ceiling. His path led from the bedside to the toilet in the bathroom, and back again. They would not be easily noticed by cleaning staff more concerned with changing sheets and vacuuming the floor than inspecting the ceiling. Who really looks at a ceiling in a hotel, except the guest who finds himself prostrate on the bed, looking at the dirty footprints above and left to assume that some previous guest’s sleepwalking truly needs to be addressed by a professional.
Of course, if that guest would just read the letter, they’d understand that not even the ceiling was sacred.